(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)
The Second Person Point of View
In the second person POV the author addresses the reader as “you”, suggesting that the reader themselves is a character in the story.
You go to the hardware store. You see a clerk with a glittering eye. You buy worm killer from the clerk and then you return home. The worms are waiting for you. When you sprinkle the worm killer compound upon the worms they chuckle merrily. They have mutated far, far beyond the ability of any hardware store chemical to hurt them. They have also eaten your cat, Sir FuzzyFace.
This astonishing slice of prose is an example of a direct second person POV, as in the narrator is addressing the reader directly. An indirect second person address is more in line with a sentence like “You never know how tough worms are until they start attacking” or “You’d think Sir FuzzyFace could outrun some crawling worms but I guess he was too out of shape…”. The “you” in indirect second person is more a generalized, much vaguer “you” than you the reader.
Second person isn’t nearly as popular in fiction as first or third person and has traditionally been more prevalent in the self-help and choose your own adventure writing genres. Second person can be jarring to the reader, who when initially addressed may instantly think to themselves, “Who the hell do you think you are, telling me what I’m doing?” and even when second person is well-executed it tends to wear the reader down, since they’re not only fighting to suspend their normal I’m-reading-fiction-but-it’s-true sense of disbelief but a second layer of disbelief on top of that (the writer can’t really be addressing me personally—he doesn’t even know me!).
Second person can be fun to play with in short doses, though, and there are some interesting modern and post-modern things you can do with it if you’re so inclined. I think there’s some untapped potential in the indirect “you”, something philosophic about it, and the direct “you” can be used to great comic effect, but you won’t be finding me grinding out an entire novel in the second person. Even I’m not that crazy.
You know what I mean?
The Third Person Point of View
Third person narratives are told by the author and utilize he/she/they when referring to characters. Third person is the heavy duty workhorse of fiction, capable of running the gamut from god-like omniscience to sparse, objective prose that describes only what is physically happening in a scene without comment, like stage notes for a play.
To briefly recap our point of view signpost words:
First person POV
I set fire to the apartment and boy did the worms scream.
We set fire to the apartment and boy did the worms scream.
Second Person POV
You set fire to the apartment because you can see no other way to stop the worms.
Third Person POV
He/she ran out of the apartment and went down to the street.
They could hear the mutated, cat-killing worms screaming for miles.
One thing to remember is that when a fictional character is telling a story they can easily slip into the third person narratorial style because they are telling a story inside a story. A character might speak in the grand, sweeping style of a novel’s author, they might go all Tolstoy for three hundred pages, but eventually their tale will end and return to their fictional, first person self and with all the considerations of fallibility, ulterior motive, and unreliability the first person POV implies.
The great strength of the third person POV is the high degree of control it allows the author, from the rarified strata of manipulating time and space itself to ground level, sentence by sentence prose. In third person you can read a characters’ mind, you can peel their heart like it’s an orange, and when that gets old you can flit to the story’s next character and start peeling all over again. You can show the reader what it’s like to be a dog running on the beach, or a tree lashed by a summer thunderstorm. You can take the reader back to prehistoric times or send them hurtling into the future. You can reimagine history altogether. You can travel to other planets, other worlds.
Yet handling the third person POV is like a driving a touchy, very expensive race car. The car will run fast and respond to your every whim, no matter how minute, but you better make sure you have firm control over it lest you go crashing into the track wall. No matter what point of view you’re using you want to make damn certain the way you’re using it A) makes sense B) is consistent and C) serves the story (as opposed to being a liability). This has to do with reader expectations, the oft-mentioned author-reader contract that assumes you, as the author, know what you’re doing and not wasting everybody’s time. As I mentioned earlier, readers grow invested by the page and don’t take kindly to sloppy, infuriating behavior.
Here’s an example of poor control in the third person POV and the chaos it can create, with footnotes to annotate the problems.
Sam picked Kelly up at seven o’clock. She was looking real hot but Sam didn’t say anything because he was so nervous. He’d been looking forward to their date all week and was wearing his fanciest boxer briefs. Each fiber of his boxers yearned to be sitting on the couch back in their apartment and not on the date. They had come so far from their humble beginnings in the cotton fields of Georgia and felt that blind dates were undignified… Arf! Kelly opened her purse and chuckled. Ha, ha. It was her tiny dog Horace—he’d stowed away because he wanted to go on the date, too. Lady look happy! Lady smell like tasty makeup want to lick lick lick lady face! Oh boy, he thought. She had a tiny dog. That was a huge red flag as far as Sam was concerned. What had he been thinking, leaving the comfort of his apartment to cavort with a stranger who carried a tiny dog in her purse?
The man and the woman emerged from the apartment building. The man hailed a cab and the woman peeked into her purse. Traffic passed by on the street. It started to rain lightly and the sparrows shivered in the trees. It was a night like any other in New York City, a night of desolation and frivolity, of gumption and lust, like so many I’ve seen myself, and, inside their secret hearts, everybody in New York was absolutely terrified.
With great power comes great responsibility. An author using the third person is well-advised to set some boundaries early on and decide how much they want to reveal. As with using the first person POV, they need to make decisions pertaining to temporal, psychic, and spatial distance and then they need to stick to these decisions in a reliable manner that does not confuse and infuriate the reader. Part of learning the craft of writing is being able to maintain a consistent tone and to write with clarity when clarity is needed. Authors like Zadie Smith and David Mitchel manipulate point of view with apparent ease, sometime switching between various elements of POV multiple times in a single scene, but they are highly aware of what they’re doing and only doing so in order to achieve a purpose that suits their story—they’re not doing it just to show off and prove how clever they are.
As for me, I usually find that the third person limited past tense POV works best for my writing and have come to rely on it more and more heavily. I like having the limitation of only viewing what’s going on in the head of one character at a time (even switching POVs once in the same chapter has started to bug me. If I’m rotating between characters and their thoughts I prefer to have a nice clean line break between them, like a psychic pallet cleanser). I don’t really feel I have the knack for total godly omniscience (unless I’ve been drinking whiskey) and I’m too nosy to sit back and watch my characters from afar while they ponder aloud how the hills look like white elephants. I want to get close to them. I went to feel their particular heat, feel their heartbeat, and see their point of view.
 Like this very book!
 I’m thinking of Italo Calvino’s novel If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler and Lorrie Moore’s great short story collection Self-Help.
 So basically this theoretical book would be mainly in third person but with a first person bookend framework established around it like many a classic tale that begins with a wild-eyed character saying something like, “Have I got a story for you…”
 Doing well so far. We’ve started in a limited third person—we get a peek into Sam’s mind but not Kelly’s. “She was looking real hot” gives us a little of Sam’s voice and pulls us into a relatively close psychic distance.
 Real sharp POV turn here-suddenly we’re seeing the scene through the eyes of the cotton fibers in Sam boxer shorts, which has no apparent bearing on the rest of the scene and is pretty weird.
 Who hears this “arf”? Sam? The cotton fibers? Is it an objective detail provided by the author? We may never know.
 Now the reader has jumped inside Kelly’s head without warning.
 Now we’re inside the Horace’s head and he’s a fricking idiot.
 Now we’re back in Sam’s head to see out this disastrous paragraph.
 Oh boy. Now we’ve pulled back to a more remote objective distance (a big favorite of Ernest Hemingway). The narrator is only relaying the scene and we’re not in anybody’s head. Sam and Kelly have been replaced by “the man and “the woman”.
 Now the author has decided to intrude on the narrative and round it up with big words and a final dash of omnipotence.